Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
Twenty-eight percent of those 75 and older in New Mexico have received at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine as the continued rollout of vaccinations of those at the top of the priority list reaches nearly 60,000 a week, state health officials said Wednesday.
The pace of vaccinations, their impact on coronavirus case counts and questions about the equitable distribution of vaccine among the state’s 33 counties were addressed at a press briefing Wednesday with Department of Health Secretary-designate Dr. Tracie Collins and Dr. David Scrase, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s lead medical adviser on the COVID-19 pandemic response.
Collins cited several factors as to why some counties, such as the state’s second most populous, Doña Ana County, have vaccinated far fewer people per capita than might be expected.
That southern New Mexico county ranked 19th highest in the per capita rate of vaccines administered. (The map, and the per capita list by county can be found at cvvaccine.nmhealth.org/public-dashboard.html.)
Currently, only first responders, health care and medical workers, those 75 and older, and people 16 years old and older with a health condition are eligible for vaccination.
“So you look at the proportion of those people within a given county, that’s one factor that will drive the discrepancies by county and the shots in arms,” she said. Provider capacity and vaccine acceptance could also be factors that could “influence the disparity you are seeing by county and the number of vaccines that are distributed,” Collins said.
She added that a DOH team is evaluating the question of equity and allocations by county to ensure fairness.
“We want to ensure our approaches to vaccine distribution really do reach all communities throughout the state and understanding what additional efforts and activities we need to have in place to make sure it’s not just the affluent, with internet access and nice phones (who) can access the registration app.”
DOH wants to ensure “there’s no favoritism or picking out buddies,” Collins said.
The DOH has identified 151,653 New Mexicans ages 75 and older as eligible for the vaccine. Another 138,000 are at the top of the priority list because they are health care workers and first responders, another 590,472 are in the third group aged 16 and older with health conditions.
Even at the current level of 9,000 doses of the vaccine administered a day, it could be several months to vaccinate all 800,000 people now eligible, Collins said.
“If we have one dose of vaccine and we’ve got two health care providers, basically we are randomizing them to see who will receive that vaccine,” she said. “So we’re randomizing within those groups.”
Collins said the DOH is considering holding special events for vaccinating eligible seniors.
“Because those who are 75 or older, even if they have a car or internet access, moving quickly to get to an appointment may be challenging so we need to provide avenues and venues where we can get those people vaccinated.”
Meanwhile, the DOH has revised its online map of county-by-county vaccination information to show per capita rates instead of the percentage of those vaccinated. The new comparison shows Union County’s vaccination rate of 39.5 per 100 people at the top.
Bernalillo County placed seventh highest in vaccines per capita, at 16.8, with Sandoval and Valencia counties in single digits at 29th and 28th respectively. Los Alamos County ranked 31st and Doña Ana County came in at 19, with 9.2 people vaccinated per 100. Santa Fe and Taos counties came in at fifth and sixth respectively.
Collins said educators, as a group, aren’t currently eligible to receive the vaccine, despite the fact that schools now have the green light to open this month.
She said teachers and school staff who are 75 and older would be currently eligible, and “plenty of teachers actually have a chronic condition and meet eligibility.”
Scrase, who is Cabinet secretary of the state Human Services Department, said the decision to reopen schools came in part because of the results of computer modeling at Los Alamos National Laboratories in December.
“The key was you could actually keep kids six feet apart, wearing masks, and avoiding the spread of the disease better in school than you might be able to achieve if they weren’t in school,” Scrase said.
Meanwhile, Scrase said through prevention efforts, like social distancing and wearing masks, New Mexico is seeing a decline in new COVID-19 cases in every part of the state.
“And we are now seeing, through our modeling, the effect of the vaccine on case counts,” he said. “We believe now enough people have been vaccinated, even though it’s 10%, we are starting to see the benefit there.”
Meanwhile, the state reported 670 additional COVID-19 cases on Wednesday, and 29 more deaths related to the virus. The total number of cases reported so far is 175,652, and 3,338 deaths. As of Wednesday, 476 people were hospitalized with the virus.
The state averaged 584 new cases over the past seven days, Scrase said, “and we’re vaccinating almost 9,000 people a day.”
“This feels like the beginning of a fourth-quarter comeback,” Scrase added, “and that’s a great score.”